Employers reluctant to hire older workers

More than 70% of Swedish employers seldom or never hire a person who is more than 50 years old. This is one of the main findings of a survey by the National Social Insurance Board, published in September 2001, examining the attitudes of 750 employers towards older workers. With demographic changes likely to create labour shortages in future, the retention of older workers in the labour force is a matter of increasing concern.

In September 2001, the National Social Insurance Board (Riksförsäkringsverket, RFV) published a report (Arbetsgivares attityder till äldre yrkesverksamma, 2001:9). It presented a survey carried out in 2000 among 750 Swedish employers. The employers were interviewed about their attitudes to older workers, especially those aged over 55 years. The survey also sought to discover whether employers' attitudes differ according to factors such as sector, age and gender structure of the workforce, size of business and geographical location.

Negative attitudes

The findings of the survey indicate that employers in general have a negative attitude to older workers, even if there are differences between different categories of employers. About 50% of the employers think that older people have difficulties in accepting changes at the workplace, such as new technology and work reorganisation. Younger workers are also better educated, asserts a similar proportion of employers. In the financial and manufacturing branches, 60% of employers surveyed agreed on both counts. However, only 19% of the employers actually claim that younger workers are more productive than their older colleagues. Some 41% of the employers disagree with the notion that older workers should keep on working, in spite of growing future needs for labour. The survey also indicates that few employers hire persons over 50 years of age. More than 70% of the employers never or seldom recruit such older people.

The employers in manufacturing industry, finance and property, commerce, communication/transport and the hotels and restaurant s are the most negative about older workers. In education and healthcare, the employers are less negative. Few employers here claim that the younger workers are more productive and better educated than older ones. It is also within these sectors that older workers are more likely to be recruited. However, the employers in education say that they invest very little in older workers, especially in terms of their health but also their skill development.

The survey also found that employers at workplaces dominated by younger workers (25-44) have a more positive attitude to older workers, compared with their counterparts at workplaces where older workers dominate. Furthermore, employers at 'younger' workplaces tend to give their older workers better education and training opportunities than elsewhere.

Encouraging older workers

In Sweden, as in Europe as a whole, demographic developments will mean that fewer workers in the economically active age groups will have to support an increasing older population. Fewer children are born nowadays, while more workers still in the potentially active age groups leave working life early. Most Swedish workers, both women and men, stop working before 65 years of age. Among those still working at 50, the average actual retirement age is only 61-62 years, according to earlier RFV surveys. In 2000, some 650,000 persons were on long-term sick leave (of more than 60 days) or received an early retirement pension because of sickness or disability. Therefore, the new report states, it is of utmost importance for the political parties, the social partners and the employers of older employees to persuade workers to stay on longer in working life. The increasingly ageing population should not be seen as a problem for society but as a powerful resource. It is, however, necessary to give individual workers all the necessary conditions for remaining in work. The employers must also have a positive attitude towards older workers.

The National Working Life Institute (Arbetslivsinstitutet, (ALI) started in 2000 a project called 'A durable working life for all ages' ('Ett hållbart arbetsliv för alla åldrar'). ALI coordinates the project and a small number of private organisations - such as the Swedish Confederation for Salaried Employees (Tjänstemännens Centralorganisation, TCO) - as well as the government support the project financially and in other ways. A survey under the project has examined the attitudes of about 6,000 working people, and asked questions about work environment, health, sleep and general living conditions. About 3,500 persons aged 25-75 years have replied to 300 questions. A first descriptive report from the project was published in August 2001, to be followed by more specific analyses. Preliminary results indicate, for example, that a majority of the older workers surveyed experience pressure from the younger workers at their workplace. The attitude behind this pressure is that older workers ought to leave their jobs in favour of the young.

Commentary

The main purpose of the RFV study summarised above was to investigate the attitudes among employers to older workers, especially those over 55 years. One of the more worrying results was that more than 70% of the employers in the survey refrain from hiring older workers, ie those over 50, when looking for new staff. The discussion of labour shortages in the near future has not yet affected many of the employers interviewed in the survey.

However, the days of labour shortage will come when all the workers born in the 1940s retire. It is thus a good start to try and change the attitudes of the employers as a whole. From the study, one can conclude that about one-third of the employers are favourable to older workers because these workers are, for example, more experienced than younger ones and thus employable. This opinion must be spread to other sectors of the labour market.

It is clear that many older, and especially blue-collar, workers today have physically onerous jobs and a less satisfactory working environment. Work tasks that are hard on the muscles and working conditions that involve too many monotonous tasks, accident risks, high sound levels, long working days with much overtime, intensive work speed and so on are much too common. One of the reasons why some of the older workers in the RFV survey want early retirement is that they find their job too strenuous.

To sum up, there are actions to be taken if employers are to want to keep their older staff and "dare" to recruit new workers over 50. The first would be to create physical working conditions adapted to the needs of older people, as well as to provide opportunities for more flexible working time. The new Swedish pension system, which started in 1999, allows workers to decide if they want to leave work at 61, with a full pension or a partial pension. Under this system, it is now easier for older workers to choose reduced working time (TN0109184S).

About half of the employers surveyed by RFV argue that older people do not learn new techniques and new skills too easily. Education and skill development is thus another necessary investment. It is also vital to discuss in some depth whether older workers are really less well educated for their tasks when compared with younger people. There is a lot of public discussion going on already in Sweden about the need for more investments in further education and skills development, and who should be responsibility for providing and financing it. A governmental committee's proposal, issued in 2000, for an individual learning account, financed jointly by the individual, the employer and the state (SE0101178F) is under consideration. (Annika Berg, Arbetslivsinstitutet)

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